On Sept. 26, Thom Yorke of Radiohead released his new record, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, making a revolutionary statement for musical distribution and harnessing the power back to the artist. Yorke is not foreign to drastic methods of delivering his music, employing the tactic regularly with Radiohead, The band released an independent record with a pay-what-you-want model in 2007. This time, he has tried to switch up the game once more.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is available as a digital download or as a vinyl record, both of which are entirely independent of a major distributor or record label. The digital download is available exclusively as a BitTorrent, which is a highly unusual method of delivery for a major artist. Essentially, the album is available as a “bundle” through the service; you pay six dollars and receive downloadable files for the eight songs on the record and a music video. The catch, though, is that fans have to utilize BitTorrent software in order to download the files upon purchase. Normally, this would feel awkward and unnecessary, but with the BitTorrent client being so user-friendly, the experience of receiving the music is a pleasure rather than a hassle.
When users download the files for Yorke’s revolutionary new record, they receive the songs as eight high-quality MP3s, which are protection-free and can be uploaded into any music platform. As a result of this process, fans receive higher quality musical files than if they had elected to stream them, something Yorke is adamantly against due to streaming being monetarily unfair to artists.
Here is the kicker: Yorke receives the entirety of the profit, even if you buy it on vinyl, since he is not distributing that through a retailer, either. Obviously, Yorke does not need the extra cash, but it does present a unique statement for other artists. This could potentially be a way for artists to make more money, connect with their fans and provide higher quality content while exercising ultimate control over their creations. Fans get to receive better and cheaper music and they directly support the band. Everyone wins except a corporate record label -which is the idea.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a very good record, though it feels more like an experimental exercise. The record is concise and smooth; calculated through its electronic madness. Naturally, it resonates a lot like a Radiohead record, differing in it subtly, since the whole record was likely constructed by Yorke on a series of zany devices. The music is erratic, blending a continuing bass riff with droning echoes and Yorke muttering incoherently into a mic. So, it is not anything that a fan of Yorke’s has not heard in the past. That may be where the record goes wrong; it sounds a bit closeted, as if Yorke was playing around in his comfort zone and did not elect to be as innovative as he has become famous for being. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes sounds contained at times, and listeners will find themselves anticipating epic collapses of sound only to be met with a soft fade into nothing.
The album peaks in several instances. The single, Brain in a Bottle, is electrifying, and The Mother Lode is certainly the climax of the record. With that said, there is something sonically intriguing about the chaotic Pink Section, a tune that can be most adequately compared to the sound of a classical, thudding piano and a swarm of electrified bumblebees darting in and out of the chords.
There is not a point in this new, revolutionary record that falls short of Yorke’s genius. It is there in many capacities – listeners just have to delve deep into the sound to find it. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes feels empty at times, missing the playfulness of Yorke’s Radiohead days and the screeching waterfalls of guitar riffs listeners fell in love with while listening to OK Computer. Regardless, the album does mark a pivotal stance for the distribution of music, empowering the artist once more and all the while providing the audience a better, more adaptable product.
Review by Brett Stewart